Russians in July: Yuri Olesha’s Envy

Yuri Olesha seems to have liked living and writing dangerously. This slim satirical novel Envy was published in 1927, just as the Stalinist purges were starting in earnest. Yet he was also born lucky: the satire was interpreted as being at the expense of the bourgeoisie or the parasitic influences in the ideal Soviet society, so he mostly escaped persecution, unlike many of his contemporaries (Zamyatin, Bulgakov, fellow Odessan Isaac Babel).

Andrei appears to be the model Soviet citizen: a party member and trade director of the Food Industry Trust, who seems to have dedicated his life to feeding the Soviet people (35 kopek sausages and communal dining halls, so no one needs to cook at home). He is rather rotund, naive, easy-going, essentially good-natured. He rescues the narrator (of the first part of the novel), Nikolai Kavalerov, who was lying drunk and homeless on the streets, and gives him shelter in exchange for some light editing chores. But Kavalerov is not grateful: instead, he spitefully observes and reports back to us the reader all of the gross personal habits of his benefactor, and mocks his idealism and ability to get excited over the silliest, most trivial of things.

He the ruler, the Communist, was building a new world. And in this new world, glory was sparked because a new kind of sausage had come from the sausage-maker’s hands. I didn’t understand this glory. What did it mean? Biographies, monumnets, history had never told me of glory like this… Did this mean the nature of glory had changed?

Kavalerov is filled with even more hatred for Andrei when he discovers that he is not the first ‘rescue project’. Before he came along, Andrei had for many years been harbouring Volodya Makarov, a young football player, in his home. And should Volodya ever return, then Andrei cheerfully admits that Kavalerov would have to free up the space for him. Suddenly, the younger man realises that he is the perpetual outsider. His thoughts could be interpreted as dripping in self-pity, but they show a man who cannot adapt (or perhaps doesn’t want to) to a society that feels alien to him. The author uses to great effect the ‘wooden language’ of Communist propaganda.

… it suddenly became very clear to me how much I didn’t belong with these people who had been called together on this great and important occasion, the utter irrelevance of my presence amongst them… I have neither hard labour nor a revolutionary past behind me…

Many of the angriest, most over-the-top scenes don’t actually occur in real life, they all take place in Kavalerov’s twisted imagination. He is the nihilist who cannot bear the optimism that is being forced on people in the Soviet system. Then he meets the counterpoint to Andrei: Ivan, the poet and dreamer, who lacks any sense of reality or pragmatism, and who happens to be Andrei’s brother, jealous of his success but not really wanting to adapt to the new world. Ivan too lives with one foot in the past, ‘the dwindling era’. And the author clearly notices and makes fun of the flaws of both the capitalist and communist system.

Author photo.

The story appears to be simple, but is embroidered with flights of fantasy, slapstick farce, unreliable narrators and characters who are prone to sudden rants. First person POV becomes a dubious sort of third person (albeit with long monologues which turn it into first person). The casual (and often hilarious) juxtaposition of sordid realism and flights of fancy, of real and imagined conversations, the tangential connections between episodes reminded me of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

It’s short, sharp, completely barmy. The best description of the effect the book had on me is in the book itself, when Kavalerov talks about the optical illusions created by street mirrors (are they really a thing?).

You don’t know which way is up, as the saying goes. So suddenly have the rules been broken, so incredibly have the proportions changed. But you rejoice in your dizziness…

I read the NYRB edition of this book, in a new translation by Marian Schwartz and introduced by Ken Kalfus.

Time for a little poetry: Playing Tiddlywinks

I see two girls, now women, who smile at others

Never at me

Who sour with life’s quick cherry passing

Go off like milk in my refrigerator door

One drip in my tea, no guests to pour out for.

 

They reverberate like echoes in the stillness of my parlour.

This is a neighbourhood of cats, no barking

No worries about leaving us alone all day

Often all night too

In hungry expectation.

 

They bring up corpses and track invitations

In the name of reciprocity

Accountancy, curation, careful recitation of moments and pictures

Togetherness invited

Competition launched, jaws that bite

 

Claws that snatch

Rewrite my story, meekness a grievous flaw,

Passivity, worse – stupidity,

Made to pay,

Trampled to shame

With a flick of a finger.

Free picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Envy, 3 a.m.

I know I always pick on Facebook, but I really don’t like the showing-offiness of that platform. I haven’t completely abandoned it, because it did help me to reconnect with some long-lost school friends, but I visit it as little as possible.

From Cosmopolitan.

Afright from a nightmare where my mother once more

waxes satirical about my weight,

I shake off the sludge of family binds and turn

to my friends in the blue glow of pre-dawn screens.

That’s the way we do it now: no calling, no comfort

of voice. Mere updates and pictures of lives

manicured like a Wimbledon lawn.

But, curated or not, I still care about my mates

or so I think                 until I see

pictures of a party with all my favourite things

tailor-made for my friend and me.

 

Except I never received an invite.

Prosaic Moods

www.swissinfo.ch
http://www.swissinfo.ch

[Precision]

Hark ye, hark ye, lads and lasses!

New Year celebration flash-passes

and we are left           with what?

Classical mood descended in hush on audience

mature, self-controlled, filigreed to perfection.

There is a time for grit and grime

but now we need to enunciate

obligate

gracefully modulate.Kite

[Joy]

There is a mood takes over mountains

roars over cataracts, thunders out joy

we parcel such moments in fine controlled gestures,

fearful to show, aware of the cloy.

Till white-foamed emotion whirls us to perdition.

[Weariness]

Exhaustion seeps in concave glow of lower back

like the low growl of giant feline basking in sun spots.

I let tiredness wash over, climb each limb and nerve,

stretch in magical indolence, tendons brushed with honey gloss,

tea-fragranced warmth settling on my chest.

[Envy]

I burn in sulphur          hang in haze

with slow-roast speed churn my emotions.

My smile fixed plastic in perfection

mind darts to places too slimy to mention.

Compare and contrast, compete and contain:

others’ pride, others’ achievements

bring nought but dismay.

Mountain

[Anger]

Now frozen, now burnt in feverish alternates,

how burnished his horizons in crimson warrior hues

dial turned to scream point, fists on the fly.

If his life were a crystal ball to fathom

he would crush it to oblivion in snarly crunch of baubled prey.

No hope, no exit, no gambit for mercy.

Future smashed smithers underfoot.

Underheard.

I am linking this to dVerse Poets Pub – where, once a week, we have Open Link Night, so come and drop by and enjoy!